2008. Dark-grey cover with a light grey band at the top. A wrinkled spine and pen marks on every page. How is that possible, I wonder now. Who reads an anthology cover to cover?
Albert Goldbarth must have made me laugh out loud. Early on there are puzzling comments – “really?” and “finally” and “hmmm” – but these give way to asterisks and then to one “ha!” after another, interrupted by a “very pleasing” and “oh my god!” “Everybody’s Nickname” contains two photographs, full-page, black-and-white reproductions of the covers of the pulp sci-fi novels Goldbarth loved as a teen, and it’s their existence, if not the images they contain, that stirs my memory. Some flicker of curiosity pulses at the bottom of my brain, drawing me to the final sentence, a fragment. “Whoever the ‘aliens’ were by then – and, of course, whoever ‘we’ were.” The back of my neck constricts, just below the hairline, and I feel I’ve been here before, with this same response to these same words. But is that true? Am I remembering reading them, remembering being moved, or am I simply moved anew in a familiar, pleasing way?
Back in the apartment, after the final feeding and the bath and the lotion and powder, after stuffing the five-month-old sausage legs into cotton pajamas that zip to the chin, they dance. The baby loves Lori McKenna’s “Bible Song,” the up-tempo and slight twang of her crooning about the urge to flee a small-town world. The man holds the baby in one arm and the woman in the other and they sway, dipping their knees, the baby smiling as he looks from face to face. When they get to the verse about the cousin who killed himself, leaving two kids behind, tears fill the woman’s eyes. But she doesn’t stop singing and they don’t stop dancing and she thinks that this is what it means to be a family: anything can happen. The future has thin edges that, if handled the wrong way, can cut to the bone.
The title must have put me in mind then, as it does now, of a long-ago winter afternoon spent navigating up through the region of Extremadura in a tiny rental car. We both liked it when I drove and he rode shotgun, hands in his coat pockets, enjoying the landscape. We made Salamanca by noon and walked through the cobblestone streets, not bothering with umbrellas in the damp breeze. The cathedral was busy with a crew setting up klieg lights and a camera dolly, and someone said it was a film about Columbus starring Gerard Depardieu. The man I was with commented on how slow and dull it was to shoot a movie. I loved that he knew about such things. I loved that we had woken that morning down the street from a Roman amphitheater and that now we were walking through a medieval university town, and that we’d sleep in my apartment in Oviedo that night, just thirty minutes from the north coast of Asturias.
But “Salamanca,” the literary version, the lovely essay about history and displacement and a community of true-blue characters? How is it that I have no memory of reading it the first time?
The walk back is a different story. She wants to sit down at the outdoor café, linger over coffee with hot milk, have nowhere at all to be. She imagines a parallel life in which she did not become pregnant for the first time at forty-three, just after agreeing to lead her university’s fall study abroad program, in which she came to Madrid alone, as had been the plan. How would she have spent her days? Wandering, sight-seeing, traveling each weekend the way her students do? And yet, she isn’t lonely now, as she would surely have been in that other reality. The days are full. The baby will one day turn into a big boy.
By the time she reaches the rose gardens, she feels equal parts excited to walk through the door, to see his fat cheeks broaden when she says hello, and full of dread. Having a baby is wonderful, she thinks, for about forty-five minutes each day. And not consecutive minutes at that.
All of this is conjured from the marginal comments, as is the emotion I felt that first time, before I realized that Brieschke had lived in Chicago, that her son had spent months in the same hospital where my newborn briefly stayed. But here’s the part that never left: the delight of a new mother, just out of high school, riding a city bus with her chicken-like newborn zipped into her coat. The ease with which she became a mom.
Weekends you’ll find them milling about, unsure what to do with themselves. They had expected to explore, to strap the baby on and go. They’d been told that babies are portable, they’ll sleep anywhere (although in retrospect, it seems to have been mostly older men who said this, men who had traveled with wives who took care of the kids). But it isn’t true. Their baby won’t sleep at all in the stroller, and although he dozes in the front pack, he needs to be swaddled in his crib in order to rest fully. After a disastrous Sunday morning trip to the Rastro, Madrid’s overcrowded flea market, where the baby cried nonstop and the Spaniards frowned and cooed, they stick mostly to their neighborhood. This isn’t so bad during the week, when they trade shifts, including a few hours of teaching prep each afternoon, but on weekends time stretches in a menacing way.
At least there’s news. John McCain and Sarah Palin, Barack Obama and Joe Biden. The beginning of a recession in the U.S., and a worsening recession in Spain. At night, after the baby goes to bed, they open their laptops and read the headlines aloud. The world is crazy, they say, feeling crazy themselves.
Remember that, I thought.
And I absolutely remember the feeling this line provoked: “the average sixty-five-year-old can expect to live another nineteen years.” I was forty-four years old when I read that and doing the math every day. Forty more years, I thought, is not nearly enough.
One night you’ll find her rebelling against the schedule dictated by the baby’s needs, by his hunger, fatigue, desire for stimulation, and she'll continue to write past midnight. By 2AM she’ll have reached a point of diminishing returns, the sentences fat and lazy, the ideas unfocused. She turns to reading instead. To the lifeline of creative nonfiction, of the essay, of writers offering what Scott Russell Sanders calls “a record of the mind at work and play.”
3AM passes, 4AM, and somewhere in this new life of rocking and wiping and the utter depletion of being responsible for another being day and night without end, she begins to recognize herself. She gets up every hour or so to open the French doors and inhale the chilly, sweet air and listen to the voices rising up from the restaurant below, and then she returns to the book as if her life depends on it. When the baby cries at 5:20AM, she goes to him, happy for the break, happy for his warm body and the power of his sucking mouth and his fat thighs that she kisses again and again.
A faded yellow post-it marks that page.
Seven years later, I’m reading through the book, appreciating the heartbreaking hilarity of David Sedaris, the raw complexity of Lauren Slater. Ariel Levy trying to find the right dress for her lesbian wedding ceremony, conducted before gay marriage was legal in the United States. Louis Menand playfully exploring quotable (and often wildly inaccurate) quotes. But I can’t focus entirely on the essays because of the other voice calling out. Check marks, a scratchy “Great similes” in Anthony Lane’s “Candid Camera,” a statement of the obvious—“Not his”—beside an underlined sentence in Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.”
“Remember,” she urges.
Now, he sounds morose. John McCain is sure to win, he says, and then what? He’s lost a lot of money in the stock market crash, so much he’ll have to rethink the future. She listens and commiserates and eventually changes the subject, telling him what failed parents she and the man are in Spain, how the babies here look like little dolls, dressed in pink or blue and sleeping peacefully in Cadillac strollers, while her baby wears hand-me-down cargo pants and bumps along in a travel stroller. “He looks like a skateboard punk,” she groans, trying to make him laugh.
And he does laugh, weakly, just as the baby wakes up.
A few days later, unable to get the sound of his voice out of her mind, its sharp edges and unsettling lows, she calls again, but the phone has been disconnected. She fears the worst, as she always has.
On election night, the man she lives with, the man who is solid and steady and never causes her to worry, stays up until 3AM watching the coverage. At 5AM, she gets up and holds the baby on her lap in front of the computer, live-streaming President-Elect Obama’s acceptance speech from Grant Park, six miles from their home. “Look,” she tells the baby, tears streaming down her face. “Look at what has happened for you, my sweet boy.”
Later she will think of these months in Madrid as very happy and, at the same time, very sad, a period when the future was daunting and, at the same time, filled with hope. In the face of all that contradiction, what else could she have done but continue to call that disconnected number, continue to rock and wipe and walk and dance, to wait and withstand, to take notes and to read, above all to read, as if every word on every page were a tiny yawp of prayer.
Michele Morano is the author of Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain, and her essays have appeared in many anthologies and journals, including Best American Essays 2006. She directs the MA in Writing and Publishing program at DePaul University in Chicago.